I heard it 40 years ago. I was taking what seemed to be a fairly uninspiring course on the historical geography of the Bible. At the time I didn’t realize that the professor was teaching his last class. His health failed mid semester and he didn’t return to teaching. Even though my memory is a little fuzzy, my recall is that, before the prof left, he told us, “If you don’t remember anything else from this class, I want you to remember that the uniqueness of the Christian faith is that it is couched in historical and geographical fact.”
The significance of a real time and place
As it turns out, that is the only thing I remember from that class. But over the years, I’ve grown in my appreciation for what the aging prof told us. The life, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus are not just a matter of faith. Together they form a storyline that claims to be rooted in real places, times, and witnesses.
This historical and geographical link means that the first generation of people who lived and then died for Jesus weren’t just dying for their belief. They were dying for their claim that they knew Jesus had risen from the dead.
As so many have pointed out over the years, that kind of claim is significant. People don’t die for what they know to be a lie. While countless have died for they believed to be the truth, the first Apostles of Christ died for their claims that they were witnesses of the resurrection.
There’s something else that’s just as important. The issue is not just that the validity of the Christian faith rests ultimately in whether Jesus rose from the dead. What I find so compelling is that there is a large body of prediction, ritual, and history that, in retrospect, all anticipates what the New Testament witnesses tell us about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These converging lines of evidence are such that they could not be manipulated or even anticipated by the New Testament authors until Jesus died and rose from the dead. The Jewish system of sacrifice, Israel’s annual cycle of symbolic holidays, and their whole system of temple worship come together in the kind of Messiah we see in Jesus.
But there’s more. According to the same generation of witnesses and martyrs, Jesus also gathered crowds by doing the kind of miracles that cannot be faked. He healed limbs that local people knew had been atrophied.
Then there’s the kind of character we see in the one who was so willing to die an unthinkably horrible death. Even though Jesus claimed to be one with God he didn’t act like a mad man. He taught with wisdom and grace. He willingly declined the urging of his followers to take control of the government. Instead he said that he had come to offer his life a sacrifice for many. Although he could have so easily defended himself, he willingly surrendered to become what John his forerunner had predicted, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
If that kind of claim was not linked to the testable claims of real times, people, and places we could treat it as just a matter of faith. But as my late prof wanted us to remember, the uniqueness of the Christian faith is that all of its converging lines of evidence are rooted in a setting of real times, places, and witnesses.